Norwich music teacher’s toolkit for fighting dementia

Pat Phelan (left) with her daughter Lesley Evans. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Pat Phelan (left) with her daughter Lesley Evans. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

A music teacher with a passion for helping people with dementia has come up with a musical toolkit to help families, friends and healthcare professionals communicate more effectively with those affected by the disease.

Using autobiographical collections of the music and sounds which have coloured their lives, volunteers help people who have been newly-diagnosed with dementia to create a Music Mirror which can be used to engage them as the disease progresses.

The woman behind the scheme is Heather Edwards, who runs popular Come Singing classes in Norwich for people with dementia and who has developed the project in partnership with the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust.

The former University of East Anglia lecturer, who is training volunteers through the Norfolk and Suffolk Dementia Academy on how to create a Music Mirror, said: 'The idea is for a volunteer to work with people who have been newly-diagnosed with dementia and are still able to express themselves.

'Getting information out of people with dementia, you can't just ask them to tell you about the music that was significant to them when they were young.

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'It can be music they used to dance to, something their Dad whistled around the house, or something remembered from a film when they were a child.

'We're training volunteers to help them to think about the past and help them to say things for themselves.'

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Heather, who came up with her idea while caring for her own father, who was diagnosed with the condition, says the process of creating the Music Mirror and spending time with the volunteer can make people feel good about themselves at a time of great uncertainty.

The Music Mirrors consist of a few sentences about each piece of music or sound. Pairing the music with someone's characteristic words describing its significance gives an extra raft of memory prompts and ways to build understanding between a person with dementia and those caring for them.

The name of the piece of music is included, and if it is in digital format a link to the song on the internet can be included.

The document is kept short, so it is easy for busy health or care professionals to read quickly. It is simple and can be easily used in a variety of settings, for example helping hospital staff to engage with patients with dementia.

Heather said: 'The best way to do it is as an email and get the GP to attach it to their records, but even the words and names of the bits of music on a piece of paper will do.

'All the different components of music are processed in different parts of the brain and a lot of those bits of the brain are the ones that are least affected by dementia. The recognition of music is less affected than words and speech.

'Because of the way music is it reminds you of words even when you otherwise haven't got much access to speech.

'As a piano player I have noticed that even people who are very ill can tell if I'm really taking the trouble to play something well, or if I'm making a few mistakes.'

She said the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital is helping patients create Music Mirrors while they stay in hospital, so they can take them home afterwards.

While the positive effect that music can have on people with dementia is recognised, Heather says Music Mirrors is not about 'playlists and putting people in headphones'.

She said: 'This is different because you have got to have someone with you. It's about talking to somebody and sharing with them and having their identity reinforced time and time again.'

More information is available at

Do you have a story about dementia? Call reporter Kim Briscoe on 01603 772474.

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